Friday, April 18, 2008

On the passing of Aimé Césaire

Aimé Césaire, the Martiniquen writer who represented the best tradition of the author as public intellectual, passed away yesterday in Fort-de-France.

Though not hugely well-know in the English-speaking world, and though defying easily categorization, Césaire's intellectual leanings can be looked upon in some ways as an outgrowth of the Négritude movement in the French Caribbean, which sought to look back to African traditions for cultural legitimacy rather than to those of the region’s colonial powers, and which was arguably first started by the Haitian educator and ethnologist Jean Price-Mars, whose book Ainsi parla l’Oncle (Thus Spoke Uncle), was one of the current's earliest key texts. Ironically, perhaps, Césaire was deeply immersed in the politics of Martinique, a French department, and of France itself. As a student in Paris, he helped found L'Étudiant Noir, an important literary review and a precursor to the later literary journal, Tropiques.

Césaire, who served in France's Assemblée nationale from 1946 to 1956 and from 1958 to 1993, also served a nearly uninterrupted stint as mayor of Fort-de-France from 1945 until 2001. A one-time Communist, Césaire broke with the Communist Party following the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, an example of moral principle trumping political expediency that many progressives would do well to consider today.

His most famous work was arguably the long poem Cahier d'un retour au pays natal.

He also managed to have an airport named after him.

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